A few months ago I read an article by Vancouver theatre critic Erika Thorkelson, who received some aggressive comments from playwright George F. Walker after she questioned the portrayal of women in his work.
A few days ago, friends of mine returned from a trip to Antigonish where they took in the world premiere of Walker’s new play For The Taking. Their distress over insensitive portrayals of race, women, sexual abuse and mental illness seemed too pressing not to openly, publicly, discuss.
Because of my schedule at work, a partner away doing their own summer theatre, and motherhood demands, I am not going to see the show myself. After thinking it over, the pals agreed to send me their own review to publish, but did not want their names attached.
So today, I give you the first Anonymous Presence.
Local Xpress says For The Taking “is not a play for the easily offended.” To me, it sounds like a play with careless portrayals of mental illness (breeding ground for stigma), which presents “difficult” subject matter without asking the audience to empathetically engage.
In her article, Thorkelson wrestles with the idea that “…if you say something, you’re a child; if you say nothing, you implicitly allow abuse to continue.”
Erika, we hear you.
Here is the Anonymous Presence 1&2, speaking for themselves.
Content warning: racism, sexual abuse, eating disorders.
“George F. Walker is known for salty, daring, cutting work.
For The Taking is no different.
Where it turns from charged and challenging into morally questionable and offensive is uncertain. The play features adultery, incest, murder, family battles, and a number of other exciting and serious topics.
It also features a woman repeatedly being told that she should not sexually engage with a younger man, while her ex-husband is currently married to a younger woman.
It features a male character knowingly carrying out a sexual relationship with his sister, a sister who does not know that there is a blood relation.
It features another woman being mocked throughout the play for having an eating disorder. The worst part of this is that the mocking primarily comes from the other woman in the play, which seems to ‘justify’ it.
It features a Chilean character being performed by a white man in brown-face.
The character is mentally unstable. No care is taken at any point to address or consider the mental instability, and this character becomes a complete mockery.
It features a woman being degraded over and over by every male in the play. She is manipulated into completely giving up her overall objective. She gives in to exactly what the men have wanted, in direct opposition to what she wanted for the entirety of the show.
This list is nowhere close to complete.
The question is: Why was this play produced? Moreover, why was the play produced for a rural audience with limited access to theatre?
There is value in doing daring work that is difficult to watch. Work that addresses controversial topics is needed. Where this production falls off the map is its lack of empathy or respect for these topics.
Let’s state what should be obvious. At no point is brown-face necessary or acceptable.
Festival Antigonish runs a season of shows every summer for a rural audience. It holds a great amount of responsibility for the theatre that it produces, because likely it is the only theatre that its audience will see that year. Why, then, is this ‘daring world premiere’ production so lacking in mindfulness for any of the issues that it contains?
Audiences want to like what they see. Especially in Antigonish, the hub for theatre this far North, there is a following and an allegiance to the festival. They will find a way to like what is in front of them. What they may not do is question it.
For The Taking shows morally depraved characters. It contains so many complicated social issues: misogyny, racism, mental disorders, beauty standards, and sexual abuse. What it does not do, and this is where it fails its audience, is question or fully explore any of the very real complexities of those issues.
Theatre can and should be a platform to discuss these things. But if the point of the show is to get cheap laughs, then a play that contains so many social issues should not be produced. There are many light-hearted comedies to fill a season.
Why? Why this show?
Risky is great, it can expand expectations and perceptions from the audience.
Real, depraved characters are also great, but producing a show for the sake of “risk’ or “shock” brings about the question: where do you put in consideration? Empathy? Discussion?
There are teenagers in Antigonish seeing For The Taking. It makes one wonder, what are they taking away? That hiding incestuous sex from one’s partner is okay, and not sexual abuse? That all women who are ‘too thin’ are anorexic? (Meghan’s note: or that people need to be thin to have eating disorders???) That mentally ill people of colour who shit their pants must be committed to a psych ward?
Theatre has power. Theatre-makers and producers are the gatekeepers of that power, and have a social responsibility to present work mindfully. Audiences, even if they don’t look for messages, take them away at the end of shows. Audiences should be mindful of what they are watching, but if they never have their views challenged, then the responsibility is on the production team to be mindful in every choice they make.
It’s unclear if For The Taking could be a satire. This production was played with honest truth, and the information within it is taken at face value. It becomes an excuse to carry on with bigotry and sexism. The writing itself could be the root of the problem, and if that is the case then the show should not have been produced without another draft. If that is not the case, then the production team needs to be very aware of what they are validating for the audience.
Hopefully this bit of writing will spark some discourse on what theatre is being produced in the Maritimes and why.
Theatre makers: What are you saying?
Theatre goers: What are you receiving?”
For the Taking plays in rep until August 27th at the Bauer Theatre
1 West Street, Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Tickets are $25-34.
Image belongs to Festival Antigonish Summer Theatre.